SOUTH BEND – If there is such a thing as an ugly victory, which Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly disputed in his post-game chat with the media, the 21st-ranked Fighting Irish achieved that feat on Saturday in beating 24th-ranked Michigan State 17-13.
The Fighting Irish (3-1) got enough defense late – just as it had a week earlier at Purdue – to survive against the Spartans (3-1) in front of the customary 80,795 fans at Notre Dame Stadium.
“It's what we expected,” Kelly said. “It's an excellent football team in Michigan State.”
Not to get into a literary spat with the veteran coach, but let's not go crazy here. Michigan State has some redeeming qualities (a physical nature, a good defense, and a nice offensive line), but referring to a squad that commits 10 penalties for 115 yards (including two when it tried to mount a game-winning drive), has an inexperienced quarterback, a mediocre run game and receivers that can't hold onto decently-thrown passes, is far from “excellent.” But in this season, Notre Dame will take what it can get, for it isn't an “excellent” team either.
A week after having to rally to beat a mediocre Purdue team, the Irish looked even worse offensively against the Spartans.
Kelly's team couldn't run the ball (it finished averaging 2.6 yards per carry) or throw it (Tommy Rees failed to complete 20 of his 34 passes). It botched a punt return (can you imagine that?), had four 3-and-out offensive series, missed a makeable field goal, had a punt blocked, and allowed the Spartans to rush for 119 yards.
But Rees felt there were reasons for some of that ineptitude.
“They're a great defense,” Rees said, “hats off to Michigan State for the way that they played the game. We know every time we play Michigan State it's going to be a physical battle.
“You're going to have to claw and fight and get enough points up there to win the game.”
Notre Dame did just that, and the part about the defense is mostly accurate, in that Michigan State is ranked number one in the country in total defense for a reason. However, Notre Dame's offensive malaise often made the Spartans look like the 1985 Chicago Bears.
“Somebody was going to have to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter (to win),” Kelly said. “We were able to get that touchdown (a 7-yard run from Cam McDaniel) and hold them from scoring one.”
It's difficult to determine whether Notre Dame kept the Spartans from “scoring one” or Michigan State kept itself. In the Spartans' final five offensive series, they threw an interception, did manage a field goal, but punted twice, and failed to convert a first down to keep any hope for a win alive.
That final drive epitomized the Spartans' offensive incompetence. Facing a third-and-10, Michigan State drew consecutive penalties, which pushed them back to third-and-20. Spartan quarterback Connor Cook then threw an inaccurate pass that was dropped, and on fourth-and-20, he scrambled before running out of bounds after an eight-yard gain. Just a mere dozen yards from having the game continue for his team.
So perhaps Kelly should temper the coach-speak on just how “excellent” this opponent really was.
As far as the Irish are concerned, they're a team that is developing into one where the Notre Dame Nation should probably just accept that it is what it is; which is good enough to beat average teams, but will probably lose to any good ones on its schedule.
“We came into this week knowing and respecting the way (Michigan State) coach Dantonio plays the game and his team,” Kelly said. “They're tough and they are physical. We had to match that. We knew what we were getting into.”
All true, and the Irish aren't bad, per se. They have risen to the occasion – albeit against not so tough opposition - defensively each of the past two weeks.
However, on Saturday Rees played his worst game of the season, the Irish simply could not muster any type of consistent running threat, and quite frankly, their most reliable offensive threat proved to be drawing pass interference penalties on the Spartans secondary (there were four such calls).
But Kelly wasn't buying the “ugly win” theory afterwards.
“I would characterize it a bit differently,” Kelly said. “I think both defenses really carried the day here today.”
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.